H+K's Coates: It's time PR elevated the needs of its employees

One challenge the PR industry has consistently failed to address is its high staff turnover rates.

Mike Coates
Mike Coates

The PR industry faces big challenges as it transitions from a focus on media relations to a myriad of other offerings. But one challenge the industry has consistently failed to address is its high staff turnover rates. We accept rates as high as 30% as "part of the business."

Yet virtually every client feedback survey I’ve conducted says continuity of account teams is the most reliable measure of satisfaction. How is it possible to foster strong client relationships if an agency is constantly changing up its teams?

The makeup of those teams indicates that our retention challenge will only grow. Our business model relies heavily on young professionals, so Millennial attitudes toward work impact us more than many other fields. But as this cohort ages into our ranks, we see study after study telling us something unsurprising: The flexibility they want, and their belief that excessive work demands are not worth the personal life sacrifice, are shared by all generations.

This generational challenge is huge, but it is dwarfed by a gender challenge that exists across industries. Women who don’t find flexibility, particularly as they start families, simply leave their jobs for new opportunities. Management consultancies such as Deloitte, Goldman Sachs, and McKinsey have launched programs in the past few decades to combat this exodus.

But our industry, which has triple the percentage of women as they do in management consulting, has not kept up. Working Mother’s 2014 List of 100 Best Companies is a who’s who of the big consulting firms. PR firms are barely there. We have to do better.

Our current GM in Toronto, Ilyse Smith, has been with us for 18 years. In that time, she has had three kids, while also rising from a young consultant to leading one of H+K’s largest offices. We’ve supported Ilyse along the way. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because the continuity she has brought to our clients has been good for our business interests.

Goodwill from progressive policies has consistently resulted in staff turnover rates in Canada being lower than the North American average. At roughly 17%, H+K Canada rivals the best local boutiques, let alone global agencies.

We have all chosen a client-first business. The shift agencies must make is recognizing that long-term client satisfaction requires elevating employee interests to equal footing with client interests.

If we want to retain the best talent, we need to commit to being better than watching staffers inside our walls walk away because of life outside our walls. In our US operation we recently did that by revamping policy commitments to our people: H+K Inside and H+K Outside. Juggling work and life in a 24/7 business will always be a challenge. There are things we can do to make the blend of the two more manageable.

We have given all employees the ability to work away from the office and on formalized reduced work schedules. Flexibility always was available to those who requested it; now it’s expressly offered. The same is true with renewed or formalized benefits related to fitness, milestones, sabbaticals, and more.

Working parents are a perfect example of the blend we seek. I’m struck by how many incredibly talented working mothers, in particular, we have in key roles. I also know how much we would have lost as a firm if they would have opted out.

Our H+K Outside policies aim to help make that transition to parent, and then working parent, possible. Our expanded maternity leave policy gives moms paid flexibility in the weeks before a due date, 16 weeks of paid leave, and paid transition schedules for a smooth return, without having to burn sick and vacation days. Fathers get 10 weeks of paid paternity leave.

Policies like these, which look carefully at employee needs at all stages of their lives and careers, are long past due in our industry. Agency management often sees client and employee satisfaction as being in conflict. That does not have to be the case.

True leaders in other sectors – where the war for talent is also robust, such as Google and Apple – have been advancing the relationship between employee and employer for more than a decade. In many cases, their PR teams helped to tell that talent story. It is time for us to listen to our own advice.  

Mike Coates is president and CEO of the Americas region at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

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